How To Convince Your Boss To Try Something New

Powerful people often become conservative. Once they’re in charge, it’s easy to feel that the knowledge that helped them rise into power is all they will ever need. This means that despite the platitudes about wanting new ideas, many bosses are hard to convince to try new things.  They have more to lose now, so their preference for the status quo increases.

We read books, take courses and go to events, often with the support of our bosses, under the pretense change is possible. But often they find ways to kill ideas, gently or passively, and not much happens. It often takes a different way of approaching the problem to get a powerful person to do something new.

Here’s a quick guide for how to convince your boss:

  1. Have a great reputation. The best leverage you have with any boss is your performance. They’re more likely to consider suggestions from the highest performing person on the team than the lowest. Before you present the grand revolutions you want them to lead, make sure you’re in good standing. Be patient. Match the size of your suggestion to the quality of your reputation.
  2. Consider what problems your boss needs to solve. Don’t start with your problems or what things you want to try. Instead think about the world from the perspective of your boss. What are their goals? What do they need to do to succeed? What achievements are they striving for? What will get them promoted? A good pitch is based on the catcher.
  3. Match what you want to try to their goals. Frame anything you want to try in terms of how it might help your boss. Will it have a chance of helping reach their sales quota? Will it help them get better clients? Will it save them budget? At minimum, think about your own productivity and morale: why should your boss care about improving these things? Consider that and make it part of your pitch. You may discover that there are far better things to suggest than the idea you originally had.
  4. Get support from respected coworkers. If your idea is good you should be able to get a coworker or two to also want to try it. Provided the boss respects their opinion, their interest helps support you. In some cases it might even be better if someone other than you makes the pitch. If you have a good relationship with the peers of your boss, especially peers they respect, consider trying to get them involved.
  5. Look for books and respected organizations that support the thing you want to try. Find companies your boss respects that already use the practice you have in mind. There are often books and papers that can help support your case. Of course getting your boss to read them is another matter, but your consumption of them will better inform you of answers to questions your boss is likely to have, and most importantly, refine your own thinking about the realities of the thing you want to try. Maybe it’s not such a good idea. Or perhaps there is a different way of thinking about the problem that’s more useful.
  6. Plan for a trial. Minimize their sense of risk by suggesting you try the new thing on a trial basis: a week or a month. Also propose a list of criteria for how to evaluate if the new thing was successful after the trial is over. If you’ve never pitched your boss on anything before, pick the smallest simplest version of the thing you want to try. Minimize the risks and earn some trust for the next time you have something you want them to try. Pick a safe and small project that has the fewest risks, or that is only of moderate importance.
  7. Make the pitch. Remember that most people in power respond differently to pitches when they are in front of a group vs. when they are by themselves. Find a situation that provides the best opportunity, based on when your boss is most responsive to suggestions (email? in your performance discussions? at coffee?) Define the problem (in terms the boss relates to), offer the solution, define the (trial) terms, and reference what other companies already participate. Observe how other people pitch your boss and what tactics work best (See: How To Pitch An Idea).
  8. Work very hard to make the trial work. Your future reputation is on the line in the trial. If the trial goes well, and they agree to the change, you’ll be in higher standing for the next recommendation you make and convincing them again will be far easier. If you fail, and fail badly, it will be harder to earn their trust next time. Do everything in your power to make sure that failing all else some useful lessons are learned, enabling the argument that doing trials, even if they fail, have minimal risk and provide new lessons for the organization. Including the discovery of new trials to do that might have better results.

In the end, it shouldn’t be all that hard to convince a smart, wise, progressive boss to try new things on a trial basis. If you realize that your boss is impossible to convince, the thing you might need to try is looking for a new boss to work for.



7 Responses to “How To Convince Your Boss To Try Something New”

  1. Sean Crawford

    A really good post.
    I would add: Remember the word “liaison.” Who else needs to be informed?

    I’m still chuckling over going down the hall to the director to propose to sending Jay off site on an errand after a problem came up. Our organization is rather flat, my peer Helen has no formal rank, she merely has good sense and works with on the same team as Jay. The director surprised me by asking, “What does Helen think?”
    “I’m way ahead of you: I already asked her; Jay can be spared.”

  2. Alex

    Hey Scott,
    Very good post, but I have one question: I’ve been promoted to manager about 3yrs ago and I still have to deal with the same issue my predecessors had: besides having bosses that are very resistant to change, I manage a team that resists just as much.
    How do manage that? How do you deal with?

    1. Scott Berkun

      I don’t know of any magic spells that makes an entire culture change. People are who they are unless they have a major motivation.

      If change is central to your happiness, look for somewhere else to work. If it isn’t, you need to reset your expectations. Change, even with staff that want it, is slow.

      I’d start with your team. Who is most open to change? Use them as an example to show others how taking risks can lead to better work. When they see the results they’ll be motivated to try.

      Same goes for management. Who is most interested in change? Or is most interested for at least one specific issue? Invest in them. When you can show the result of a project, no matter how small, where doing something new contributed to the success, you’ll draw more interest from the others.



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